Hao, my guide,
drove me out along a bumpy, dirt road, through the jungle, to a Brao
tribal village, where I was to meet my elephant. Checking my
pockets, I cursed myself for having forgotten my peanuts. The
village was small, with only fifteen houses. But no one could call
it a one-elephant-town, this village boasted three elephants.
In the center of
the village, I stood on a mounting block, feeling like Fred
Flintstone, waiting for my elephant to arrive. Unfortunately I had
left my elephant schedule back in the hotel. A few minutes later, a
huge animal came lumbering through the village. You have seen
elephants in a circus, and I have ridden elephants in a weeklong
elephant polo tournament. But seeing an elephant in a village gave
perspective to the mammoth size of these animals.
The elephant made
the houses look like small toys. I was reminded of those large,
armoured walking robots in The Empire Strikes Back.
stopped. Is this the cross town I asked. The last thing I wanted to
do was get on the wrong elephant, and have to transfer three times
to get back.
principal occupation is farming, not too many years ago, the Brao
spent considerably more time in the forest, hunting. At that time,
they caught and bred elephants to assist them in their work. Today,
elephants are still used, but they are not as common as before.
old Brao driver, Gat, said that the elephants are still sometimes
used for hunting. If we ride elephants into the jungle, the animals
don't smell the humans, so they are not afraid. They shoot their
prey from the back of an elephant. Elephants are also used for
transporting goods and taking children to school in the other
village. But only in the rainy season. Said Gat.
None of the roads
in Ratanakiri province are paved, making transportation a problem,
particularly during rainy season.
drove elephant, as did his ancestors before him. Driving elephants
is as much a matter of skill as a matter of having a spiritual
connection with the tremendously powerful animals. In playing
elephant polo, I had seen just how fast these animals could run. And
the strength of an elephant is completely unmatched by any other
land animal. At any moment, if the elephant chose to, he could kill
the driver, or at the very least, run off into the jungle. Gat's
father had only promoted him to driver three months earlier. In
tribal hierarchy, I am certain that this was a significant promotion
in rank and stature. Of course, said another way, we were being
driven by someone who still had a learners permit.
I held tighter to
the basket saddle.
This elephant is
only sixty years old. Said Gat. He sounded like a used car salesman,
like Yeah, this baby only has sixty thousand miles on her.
But they were
village miles. The previous owner was an old lady who only drove her
to get water at the stream twice a week. She's a cream puff.
I knew that
elephants lived a long time. But still, the age sounded pretty old
to me. Of course I had no way of verifying, because it is rude to
ask an elephant her age. In one of the guide books it said you could
tell an elephant's age by cutting them in half and counting their
rings. Somehow, this also seemed rude. And besides, when I think
about it, maybe that was for trees.
Sell elephant for
thirty cows. Said Gat.
At first I
thought that he was making small talk. But then I realized maybe he
was trying to sell me an elephant. Hao assured me that thirty cows
was a good deal. I checked my wallet. Unfortunately I only had
seventeen cows. I had a hundred cow note, but they couldn't make
They offered to
make change in pigs, but I didn't know the exchange rate from pigs
to cows. In the end, I went home in a van, elephantless.
subject, we asked Gat how many brothers and sisters he had.
I don't know, I
I wasn't sure if
he meant that he had so many that he couldn't count, or if they
weren't all from the same mother and father, or if he really
couldn't count. Lack of education is one of the most serious
problems plaguing both the hill tribe people and rural Khmers. In a
recent video made by an Australian NGO, which was providing free,
village based education, hill tribe women said that the three things
they wanted to learn most were Khmer language, literacy, and basic
math. Because of a lack of arithmetic, the hill tribal people are
often taken advantage of in the markets. Lack of literacy gives them
zero access to information. The result is that they succumb to
easily preventable illnesses, and they are prime targets for land
I only went to
school for one month.ˇ¨ Said Gat. ˇ§I didn't like it.
Among the many
issues, which prevent tribal people from completing school is that
they don't like to be indoors. They feel more comfortable in the
forest or in their rice fields, with their extended family close by.
Can you read? I
I only leaned to read my name. Answered Gat. But then with a laugh,
he added. But I forgot how, because I haven't practiced in a long
Another issue is
that the majority of tribal people can't speak Khmer. So, it is very
difficult for them to grasp the concepts of reading and writing,
when taught in a foreign language. A program funded by the
Australian NGO CARE, is using tribal teachers to first teach
literacy in the tribal language, before teaching literacy in Khmer.
This approach seems to be more effective. Another improvement over
the older methods is that tribal literacy is being taught using the
Khmer, rather than the Latin, alphabet.
Since they will
eventually need to learn the Khmer alphabet anyway, it is much
faster if they learn it through their own language.
unfortunately, was not so lucky. ˇ§My teacher was Khmer, and she
couldn't speak Brao language.
Whereas elephant driver was probably a full time job at some time in
the past, Gat was a full time farmer, and a part time elephant
driver. He hadnˇ¦t married yet, although he admitted that he was
well above the normal marrying age for tribal people, which he said
was between fifteen and eighteen. He was waiting till he had enough
money to support a wife and family.
price of elephants has gone up. Said Gat.
He wasn't going
to be happy unless I left there, behind the wheel of my own, brand
new elephant. In Gat's mind, it was probably a win-win proposition.
I could get a good, low-mileage elephant, and he could finally get
You used to be
able to get an elephant for thirty cows. But now, elephants cost six
Now I knew how
those tribal women felt at the market. I could do basic arithmetic,
read, and write a little, but I would still get ripped off at the
market because I didn't know which was worth more, thirty cows or
six thousand dollars.
We passed through
hill tribe villages, but there were also a good number of Khmer
families, who had come to Ratanikir to take advantage of easy access
to land. I do a lot of my tours on a bicycle, because a man on a
bike always gets a good reception. But, if you want people to roll
out the red carpet, show up on an elephant. Nothing compared to the
reception you get, mounted on the back of a huge, lumbering
pachyderm. Riding an elephant, I felt like King Jayavaraman VII, who
built Angkor Wat. Whole villages turned out to greet us with huge
smiles on their faces. It was like the Pied Piper, an army of small
children ran after us, frantically waving, and shouting hello and
bye-bye in English. A woman selling products from an informal stall
in front of her house shouted at her young son, calling him back.
I told you not to
harass the people riding elephants. She admonished. I remembered my
own mother telling me the same thing, back in Brooklyn, when I was
his age. The boy looked shy and tried to stay put. But, in the end,
his excitement got the better of him, and he began chasing us.
We passed a small
hand operated mill, which the Khmers referred to as gonlein tamaw or
the place of the rocks. The ride took us over fields, which had
apparently been subjected to slash and burn farming in the past. Now
they were overgrown again possibly in some rotation of farming. We
turned back into the jungle, eventually arriving at a river, where
we walked across the slippery stones of the river bottom and looked
over the edge of the waterfall. I could see the headlines now. Man
drowned on elephant, over falls, film at eleven.
That was a film I
didn't want to star in, so I asked Gat to turn back.
Once around the park, and then home, James.
author at: email@example.com
You can reach
Long Leng of Phnom Penh Tours at
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